After unprecedented back-to-back seasons with 20 or more wins and trips to the second round of NCAA tournament play, South Carolina volleyball is reloading for the 2020 season with an eight-woman signing class. The Gamecocks welcome six incoming freshman and two graduate transfers to the roster, providing the program with a wealth of depth going into year three with head coach Tom Mendoza.
"I think our 2020 class has a little bit of everything a team needs to compete at this level," Mendoza, who is only coach in program history to win 20 games and reach the postseason in their first two seasons at the helm, said. "Our first priority is tightening up our ball control and serve reception and I think we've done that with the defensive specialists and pin hitters we've brought in. Bringing in a talented middle to add depth to our group was key for us as well. These four-year freshmen are loaded with potential, and we love the pedigree that our graduate transfers bring."
CAITLIN CRAWFORD | DS/Libero | Oconowomoc, Wis. | Oconomowoc HS | Milwaukee Sting VB Club
Coming from a strong region for prep volleyball, Crawford helped both her club and high school teams find success. She anchored the libero position and helped Oconomowoc reach the Wisconsin Division I state final in the fall, and despite a shortened club season the Milwaukee Sting 18's team finished 26 out of 112 teams at the loaded 2020 Triple Crown Volleyball NIT tournament in February and also had a top-five finish at AAU nationals.
The daughter of Christian and DeLane Crawford, Caitlin will pursue a degree in exercise science at South Carolina.
"We feel like Caitlin has the ability to play a variety of roles. We've seen her play libero and take over matches defensively and behind the service line, and we've seen her play three rotations as a defensive specialist and still make a big impact," Mendoza said. "For players breaking into the college game, it's a great skill to have, she can play these roles and find a lot of different ways to help us. Her skill level is really high, we expect her to come in and hit the ground running."
MALLORY DIXON | Setter | Manitowoc, Wis. | Lincoln HS | Wisconsin | Fox Cities Elite Club
Dixon spent four seasons with Wisconsin and will finish her indoor career at South Carolina this fall. She appeared in 20 matches in her first three seasons and sat out for the fall of 2019, but had plenty of postseason experience in Madison. In her time with the Badgers, the team made deep runs in the tournament, highlighted by reaching the championship in 2019 and the regional final in 2018. As a high school standout in Wisconsin, Dixon compiled over 3,800 assists, 1,000 digs and 250 service aces and earned her conference's player of the year honor three times. At the club level, she played for Fox Cities Elite, helping the team finish third at the USAV Nationals and 11th at AAU Nationals.
"Mallory is a great leader and teammate, which is invaluable at the setting position. Lauryn Gillis, who was our Volunteer Assistant last season and played at Wisconsin with her, raved about Mallory as a person and spoke highly about how smart of an offense she runs and how good of a setter she is," Mendoza said. "Mallory is a coach's daughter and has been in the gym her whole life. She's the type of player where you feel like you have an extra coach on the court. Mallory knows what it takes to be successful at this level."
KIUNE FLETCHER | Outside Hitter | El Dorado, Trinidad and Tobago | St. Joseph's Convent
Fletcher will carry on a family legacy at South Carolina, following in the footsteps of her cousin, Mikayla Shields. Fletcher is the youngest member of the Trinidad and Tobago national team, making the roster for the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Women's World Championship in Japan and the 2019 Pan American Cup. Despite being just 17 at the time, she was also named captain for the team's NORCECA Women's Continental Cup run. Her international experience coupled with raw athletic abilities has the Gamecock coaching staff eager to get her into the gym.
"Kiune is a special story. (Mikayla) Shields came to us and said 'I've got a cousin that plays' and showed us some clips and we were all impressed," Mendoza recalled. "Kiune has great experience for someone her age, playing a lot already with the Trinidad and Tobago national team and even earning a role as team captain. She can play on either pin and has the potential to play six rotations whether it's on the left or right side. She can make an instant impact as an attacker and blocker, she has the ability to elevate and put the ball down on an elite level and we think with more training her potential is exciting."
KYLA MANNING | Outside Hitter | Stone Mountain, Ga. | Chamblee Charter HS | Coastal Carolina | A5 South VB Club
Manning will also be carrying on a special Gamecock legacy, as the graduate transfer moves to South Carolina after a stellar career at Coastal Carolina. Manning is the daughter of Barry Manning, who played in 121 games for the South Carolina men's basketball team from 1989-92. She will pursue a masters in biomedical sciences at South Carolina, with the goal of becoming an optometrist. In her three seasons as a Chanticleer, she totaled over 800 kills, 450 digs and 50 aces, and earned all-conference honors in 2018 and 2019. She also competed for Coastal's beach volleyball team.
"Kyla has proven that she can be successful at this level and help her team reach the NCAA Tournament. The numbers she put up were not only impressive, but consistent too," Mendoza said. "When an outside hitter can get three kills per set hitting over .280 while playing six rotations with strong passer ratings, that checks every box you want as a coach. As the daughter of a Gamecock basketball great, representing South Carolina is a big deal for Kyla and we are excited to see what she accomplishes in a Gamecock uniform."
ELLIE RUPRICH | Middle | Beverly Hills, Mich. | Birmingham Groves HS | Legacy VB Club
When Mendoza was named the next head coach at South Carolina in January of 2018, Ruprich was identified as a high-priority target for the coaching staff. A multi-sport standout athlete out of Beverly Hills, Michigan, Ruprich is a 2019 AAU All-American and AVCA All-Region team member. She helped her Legacy Volleyball Club 18s team to the prestigious NIT Triple Crown title in February before the season was cut short, but had previously helped the team make the top five at AAU and USAV nationals in previous years.
"Ellie was one of the first players that caught our eye when we got to South Carolina. She fits a need and she has the ability to come in right away and make an impact, while also showing potential that she'll get better year after year. She's good off one or two feet as an attacker and her movement from a blocking standpoint is really good. Just as important, we feel that her personality will fit in really well with our culture."
JANNA SCHLAGETER | LS/OH | Norcross, Ga. | Norcross HS | A5
Janna Schlageter will bring key physicality to the left side pin, after the Gamecocks graduated key reserves Britt McLean and Alicia Starr this year. Standing at 6-foot-2, she led her high school team with 570 kills and a .374 kill percentage in her senior season, and made the Georgia coaches all-state team for her efforts. On the club level, she competed for A5.
"Janna came to camp and we saw her athleticism and ability to play six rotations on the pin. We saw big steps of improvement already from her, so I'm excited to see her come in and grow to learn the speed of the game. She's big, can pass well through six rotations and really shows a willingness to get better rep by rep, all the qualities you like to see in an outside hitter."
MADELINE SWENTOR | DS/Libero | Chagrin Falls, Ohio | Chagrin Falls HS | Academy Volleyball Cleveland club
Swentor will be another Gamecock legacy starting in 2020, following her father David who played for the men's soccer program. Swentor is an all-district honoree and school record holder for digs at Chagrin Falls, she averaged over five digs per set as the team's libero in 2019. For her club team, Academy Volleyball Cleveland, she helped it reach USAV Junior Nationals three times, placing as high as fifth. She will pursue a degree in public health at Carolina, with a goal of going into speech pathology.
"At this level the game is decided on pass and serve, and Maddie is going to be a big piece of that. She can play defense, she can score on her serve, and the players that can do that at this level are difference-makers. She's been at camp the last few years and has experienced being around the team and understanding our culture, so we think she's going to fit in really well."
RILEY WHITESIDES | LS/OH | Greenville, S.C. | Mauldin HS | Upward Stars
Whitesides will aim to be another standout player from the Upstate, joining the Gamecocks after stellar careers with Mauldin High School and Upward Stars volleyball club. At Mauldin, she was a three-time All-State honoree and a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year finalist. With Upward Stars, she was recognized individually as a 2015 AAU All-American, an AVCA All-Region member and made the Junior Volleyball Association's watch list. At South Carolina, Whitesides will pursue a degree in education.
"We considered Riley to be one of the best six-rotation outside hitters in our region in this 2020 class, she can impact the game in a lot of different ways. She is an elite passer and defender, and is athletic enough to be a go-to attacker in both the front and back row. Her physical skills paired with a high-level of game awareness will allow her to bring down the freshman learning curve and put her in a position to help our team from day one."
The incoming class will bolster a roster that did lose starters from last season's NCAA tournament squad, but Mendoza points to an abbreviated but productive spring as a cause for major optimism on the court in 2020.
"Our returners worked really hard during our spring practices, and while it was cut short I thought we made a tremendous amount of progress and really saw some individuals step up," Mendoza said. "I still consider it one of the best spring training seasons I've had as a coach. The returners from last fall's roster are talented and eager to make their impact on the program."